It's hard not to take a glass-half-empty attitude toward President Obama's Iraq speech today -- especially when John McCain is praising his policy and prominent Democrats are criticizing it.
Obama's speech, delivered to Marines at Camp Lejeune, will leave as many as 50,000 US troops in Iraq long after August, 2010. Said Obama:
As I have long said, we will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq. Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35-50,000 U.S. troops.
McCain was soberly gleeful, and he took a shot at antiwar Democrats in Congress:
The President's plan, as it was briefed yesterday, is one that can keep us on the right path in Iraq. I worry, however, about statements made by a number of our colleagues indicating that, for reasons wholly apart from the requirement to secure our aims in Iraq, we should aim at a troop presence much lower than 50,000.
And McCain added:
I believe that the administration should aim to keep the full complement – 50,000, as briefed by Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen – and not succumb to pressures, political or otherwise, to make deeper or faster cuts in our force levels.
The Washington Post rounded up comments from disappointed and concerned Dems, noting that only Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois immediately praised Obama's plan, and adding:
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) echoed the worries of other Democrats who want a faster and more complete withdrawal, saying: "I do think we have to look carefully at the numbers that are there and do it as quickly as we can." Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) issued a statement saying he is "concerned" about the level of troops that would remain in Iraq. And Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) said he would "await the justification" as to why the slower pace is necessary.
Marc Lynch, one of the more astute analysts on Iraq, writes on his Foreign Policy blog that Obama's plan -- which apparently will leave most combat forces in place until after the Iraqi national elections -- will force Obama to rush the withdrawal of those forces hurriedly in just a few months to meet the August, 2010, deadline:
Just look at the calender. Iraq's Parliamentary elections have not yet been scheduled and don't even have an electoral law, and according to a number of senior Iraqi politicians probably will not be held until March 2010 (not December 2009). That would then give the U.S. about five months to withdraw the bulk of the dozen combat brigades which would reportedly remain. And then, keep in mind that U.S. officials generally agree (correctly) that the most dangerous period of elections is actually in their aftermath, when disgruntled losers might turn to violence or other destabilizing measures. So the following month will likely not seem a good time either. So that would leave four months to move, what -- 9 brigades? Did someone say precipitous? Good luck with that. And that's assuming, of course, that nothing else risky or destabilizing comes up in April or May 2010 (Kirkuk?) which would make a drawdown at that moment appear risky.
Obama didn't say anything about the US-Iraq accord signed last year that sets a 2011 deadline for the departure of all US forces. Now, of course, that deadline was always seen, by both sides, as (shall we say?) "flexible." Prime Minister Maliki, bowing to the rising nationalist trend in Iraq, made it seem like that he wants American forces to leave, but he doesn't. In fact, his top aides have told people in Washington that they want American troops to remain in Iraq for much longer, as long as they continue to build up Maliki's armed forces.
If you're keeping score, it's Center for a New American Security 1, Center for American Progress, 0. CNAS, the centrist thinktank, urged Obama during the campaign to do exactly what he just announced, while CAP urged Obama to execute a far more comprehensive, and faster, pullout. An intelligent commentary at CAP's web site today, written by Peter Juul, warns Obama that he'd better consider a quicker withdrawal, especially if an Iraqi referendum on the US troop presence votes the US-Iraq accord down in July. Says Juul:
Still, the president must be prepared to conduct a quicker withdrawal, whatever the situation on the ground in Iraq. Why? In order to pass the SOFA through the Iraqi parliament, a provision for a popular referendum by July 2009 was included alongside the agreement. If the referendum rejects the SOFA, the United States will have one year to completely withdraw from Iraq. But Obama's plan doesn't make a sufficient "down payment" on withdrawal prior to the referendum in order to convince skeptical Iraqis that the United States really does plan to leave Iraq on the timetable specified in the SOFA. So it's not outside the realm of possibility that the United States could be forced to make a complete withdrawal from Iraq by July 2010.
Ultimately, it's sad indeed to see the antiwar wing of the Democratic party disheartened by Obama's Iraq policy, while the McCains of the world are cheering. This, truly, is change I can't believe in.